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Walk the Light

When our story last left off, I had cobbled together a portable light kit in an effort to stop sucking at portraits. As it often goes in this business, things don't always synch up like you would anticipate. If our advertising staff sells a lot and we end up with a big news hole, it's bound to be a slow news day and the same is painfully true when the versa-type of vice squeezes a busy day full of news into a tiny paper. So, of course, the usually steady stream of portrait assignments somehow slowed to a trickle as soon as I got my gear.

Go figure.

In January, I had three portrait shoots and one happened to be in our studio at the office, negating the need to play with my new toys. Kennewick photographer John Clement was releasing his new book and I found out I'd be photographing him about five minutes before he showed up. It's always daunting to shoot another photographer — especially one who's been working longer than I've been alive. Equally challenging is making an interesting photo to go with a story about a new book. Not having any time to think about it didn't help matters, so I went with something tried and true, quick and dirty, and tried to make a moody-looking pseudo artsy portrait:

It's nothing special, but I remembered to address a couple small things I've screwed up in the past, making sure to get a little extra light on the thing I'm highlighting and lighting the back of his head to get some separation from the dark background.

Having time to think and talking with artist Pedro Valdivia beforehand made for a much more dynamic shoot. The Pasco native is on the cover of this week's Atomictown and with Assistant City Editor (and this blog's editor) Kristina Lord writing the story, I wanted to make some snazzy frames, lest thy good Lord striketh me down. His work was already up at Kennewick's You & I Framing & Gallery, which thankfully had plenty of space and laid-back owners who let me use their gallery as a studio. I took advantage of not being pressed for time and ran through several poses, outfits and backgrounds. Ultimately, Herald layout luminary Jeremy Dutton and I picked this shot for the cover,

and this one to run inside with the story:

Along the way, Valdivia was energetic and had plenty of his own ideas, including some jumping shots:

I botched the lighting in that second shot, with his shadow blasted on the wall, his see-through leg (thanks to a slow shutter speed) and the shiny candle holder, which he didn't make, catching so much light — an unfortunate oversight that ended up in the inside shot shown above. Letting in the warmer ambient light on the right side of the frame also gives that part of the photo, and his art, a pukey color. Before I had a chance to notice or address these issues, he started doing the breakdancing moves, which I liked a lot more than the jumping poses and readjusted the lighting for that.

We tried a different setup, more prominently featuring a skateboard he decorated, but I don't like his expression as much and the composition looks a little wonky with that bright board so front-and-center:

Other than that, it was nice to once again have a subject with so many ideas and so much energy, which let me concentrate more on how I wanted to light the shot instead of coming up with the next thing for him to do:

Still, there's plenty of room for improvement, even in this shoot's winning photos. I'm not liking the hard shadow coming off the left of the column in the cover shot, which you can see in these outtakes from the same setup:

Better placement of the background light would have easily fixed that. And while I like the energy in the second one, I agreed when Jeremy pointed out that it made him look like a magician.

The mistakes clearly show I need more time working with my gear so it becomes second nature and I can get back to noticing the distracting background details (pillow, shiny candle holder) that drive me crazy when I finally spot them back at the office. Why go to the trouble of lighting the shot if it makes me miss annoying things? Well, here's an unlit photo that Valdivia asked me to shoot of him with a painting he just sold:

Relying only on available light could still be my strategy when I have awesome light, but this obviously wasn't one of those situations.

Getting a portrait of fed-up DirecTV subscriber Lou Therson was a much different assignment. I had come up with a basic concept beforehand and just had to figure out how to light it. His TV was thankfully large enough for my idea, but unfortunately low, meaning I'd have to come up with a suitable pose on the floor for a 75-year-old. Therson did have his old DirecTV equipment, however, which was nice to include in the shot:

His annoyed pose was fitting and probably more likely stemming from the fact that I had kept him on the floor in a posture that my 27-year-old knees can't handle for too long these days. I was conscious of this from the get-go and made sure to give him breaks, which wouldn't have been necessary if I wasn't such an idiot at physics. I spent much of the time on this shoot trying to get rid of my flashes' glare from the TV screen. The problem was, I kept adjusting the one that wasn't glaring.

Sorry, Lou.

Other than that, I still got some more lighting spilled than I wanted, which is more noticeable in this outtake,

which I like, but felt his pose was more "Mafia boss" than annoyed customer.

Clearly, the story of my quest to stop sucking at portraits is to be continued. I feel like I've made some recent strides, but there's still plenty of room to grow. And while I used to bemoan having to shoot environmental portraits, here's hoping I get a few more this month.


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